Lemon drizzle cake is a modern British favorite. In fact, a recent poll found that 40 percent of Brits prefer lemon drizzle for tea than any other cake. I say modern because the first known recipe for this iconic cake appeared in the July 1967 edition of London-based newspaper The Jewish Chronicle, and anything that happened within my lifetime is, in my mind at least, modern!
But the history of lemon drizzle cake goes back much further, to the origins of the ubiquitous pound cake, an invention dating back to the early 1700s. It was called pound cake because it required a pound of each of its ingredients: flour, sugar, butter and eggs. If that sounds a little large, just picture a Bundt cake big enough for a couple of families.
Through the years, bakers began putting their own signature on the humble pound cake, and adding lemon peel was one of the earlier adaptations. (Lemons were fairly common in Britain, having been imported from southern Europe since the late 15th century. They were even rationed to sailors in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars when it was discovered that they could cure scurvy.) By 1851, American cookbook writer Eliza Leslie included in the pound cake recipe published in her Direction for Cookery the juice of two lemons and three large oranges.
But the credit for lemon drizzle cake as we know it goes to Evelyn Rose, who published her recipe for Luscious Lemon Cake in the The Jewish Chronicle, the oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper in the world. Her cake, baked in a loaf pan, is doused with warm lemon syrup right after it’s taken out of the oven and is left in the pan to soak up the sweet liquid as it cools. Oh happy day!
There is something about the sharp tang of citrus that lifts the common sponge to new heights. The bakers in the Great White Tent knew this and used it to their advantage. From Jane’s Lemon and Poppyseed Drizzle Cake to Rav’s Ginger Spice Yuzu Drizzle Cake, each of them brought their own distinctive style and flavor to this signature bake. Not all of them used citrus in their drizzle cakes; Kate made an apple and bramble drizzle cake using blackberry syrup, and Tom made a gin and tonic drizzle cake, boiling down tonic water to create a tonic curd to go with his gin-drizzled cake (which turned out to be too much gin, even for Mary Berry!).
My drizzle cake, which I adapted from this recipe, combines the flavors of grapefruit and thyme in an olive oil and buttermilk sponge. Roasting grapefruit that’s been sprinkled with sugar mellows its bitterness and brings out a caramelized sweetness to the tart fruit. The cake is made with both the zest and juice of the roasted fruit, as well as a couple teaspoons of thyme leaves. More thyme is then steeped in a syrup made from additional grapefruit juice and sugar, which is then poured over the still-warm cake as it soaks up the drizzle. The result is a moist yet delicate sponge infused with tart grapefruit and the earthy undertones of thyme that are enhanced by fragrant olive oil.
Perfect with a cup of Earl Grey tea on a drizzly winter’s day, this cake is definitely moreish and one I’ll add to my regular baking repertoire.
Roasted Grapefruit & Thyme Olive Oil Drizzle Cake
For the syrup and garnish:
- 3 grapefruit
- 2 T. turbinado (raw) sugar
- 2 fresh thyme* sprigs, plus extra for decoration
- 2 T. water
- ½ c. sugar
For the cake:
- 2 c. flour
- 1¼ c. sugar
- ¾ t. baking soda
- 1½ t. baking powder
- 1½ t. kosher salt
- ½ c. grapefruit juice and zest from 2 grapefruits
- 2 t. thyme* leaves
- 1 c. olive oil
- 1 c. buttermilk, room temp.
- 3 eggs, room temp.
- Preheat oven to 425°F. Zest two of the grapefruit and reserve the zest for the cake batter. Cut both zested grapefruit in half and place, cut side up, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Slice the third grapefruit into 1/8- to ¼-inch slices and place them on the baking sheet in a single layer. Sprinkle the cut halves and slices of grapefruit with turbinado sugar.
- Roast grapefruit slices for 15 minutes, until sugar is caramelized. Set them aside for garnish. Roast grapefruit halves for 20-25 minutes, until sugar begins to caramelize. Let fruit cool enough to handle, then juice the halves and strain out pulp and seeds. Measure out one-half cup of juice for the syrup and one-half cup for the cake. Reserve the rest for another use.
- To make the syrup, combine one-half cup grapefruit juice, two tablespoons water and one-half cup sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat, place two thyme sprigs in the syrup and steep for 15-30 minutes. (After the 15-minute mark, taste every a few minutes until it reaches its desired strength. It should taste of thyme without leaving a bitter aftertaste.) Strain and set syrup aside.
- To make the cake, reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Brush the inside of a Bundt pan with lining paste** and set aside. In a large bowl, combine sugar, thyme leaves and grapefruit zest. Rub the zest and thyme into the sugar with your fingers until well mixed. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt to the sugar mixture and whisk to combine.
- In another bowl or measuring cup, whisk together olive oil, buttermilk, grapefruit juice and eggs until smooth and homogeneous. Slowly pour wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until batter is smooth and no clumps of flour remain.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for 45-60 minutes, until the cake is dark golden brown, the sides are beginning to pull away from the pan, and the center is set and not wiggly.
- Remove from oven and leave cake in pan for 10 minutes, or until it’s cool enough to handle. Flip cake out of pan onto a serving platter and poke it all over with a skewer. Reserve two tablespoons of syrup for the glaze, then drizzle one-quarter to one-half cup of syrup over the cake, watching to make sure it soaks it all up.
- To make the glaze, add reserved syrup to powdered sugar and mix until smooth. Drizzle glaze over cake and garnish with roasted grapefruit slices and thyme sprigs.
*For a milder flavor, use lemon thyme.
**I use Nancy Birtwhistle’s recipe for lining paste: Equal parts (by weight) of vegetable shortening (Crisco), flour and vegetable oil, whisked together. Store in refrigerator.